The McDonald's All-American Game returned to Chicago for the fourth consecutive year Wednesday night, and with the NCAA Final Four starting this weekend, it's only fitting that some of the top future NBA prospects are discussed. Three Chicago products — Curie power forward Cliff Alexander, Whitney Young center Jahlil Okafor and Marian Catholic point guard Tyler Ulis — played in the all-star game and while Ulis, the diminutive, Kentucky-bound floor general, isn't regarded as a pro prospect at the moment, the two big men, ranked by some observers as the two top high school players in the nation, are seen as potential lottery picks in the 2015 NBA Draft.
The game itself was won by the West team, 105-102, with Okafor — playing for the West, along with Ulis; Alexander was placed on the East — sharing MVP honors with leading scorer Justin Jackson of the East. The exhibition affair was actually a bit underwhelming and low-scoring for an all-star game.
There's been a lot of discussion about how the 2013 high-school class, featuring Simeon product Jabari Parker, Kansas star Andrew Wiggins and others, has been a relative disappointment after all the hype it received entering the season. That's probably a bit of a stretch, as it's true that perhaps none of them will be an NBA All-Star next season, but several prospects have at least that potential and it looks to be a deep draft class, in terms of at least solid professional role players.
That said, the 2014 class has been receiving a lot of buzz lately and while there are some bonafide talents, the past few days of practices, let alone the actual game, revealed a lot of flaws. There do appear to be multiple prospects with down-the-line star potential at the highest level in the game, but it would be false to claim that this group is better than last year's.
As a city, Chicago can take pride in having two of the obvious potential stars, continuing a remarkable run that goes back to the top-ranked prep player in 2011, reigning NBA Rookie of the Year Anthony Davis.
Okafor's low-post repertoire, massive frame, shooting touch and underrated basketball I.Q., including the ability to pass out of double teams and put the ball on the floor, add up to a unique skill set, one worthy of all of the accolades he's received. Although the center must work hard to continue to improve his conditioning, defensive presence and the consistency of his mid-range jumper, his advanced back-to-the-basket game, something that even many professionals don't possess, is a potential game-changer, not only at Duke next season, but even in the NBA.
Alexander is much more raw, having come to the sport later, but his physical tools, which include terrific length, a chiseled physique and elite-level explosiveness, bode well for his upside. While the athletic wonder must work on his footwork and post moves, his high motor, instinctive defensive presence, relentless rebounding, ability to change ends and underrated shooting touch, even on free throws and out to 15 feet on his mid-range jumper, are excellent building blocks for a prospect who might not ever develop into a primary scoring option, but can still be an impact player on any level.
Meanwhile, Ulis, though he certainly doesn't project as a one-and-done talent, could end up being the starting point guard next season for Kentucky, currently in the Final Four, if the Wildcats' starting backcourt of the Harrison twins depart for the NBA, as many observers expect. His size will always be an issue, but Ulis' blend of quickness, clever ballhandling, pesky defense, three-point shooting and ability to operate both in transition and the pick-and-roll makes him an excellent four-year prospect, one who should be exciting for fans to watch over the course of his career.
But since Chicago isn't the only city producing top-tier prospects, here are 10 other players in the class with the upside that gives them a chance to reach basketball's highest level and succeed, based on their skill set and performances in either the game or its practices:
Justin Jackson, 6-7 wing, Homeschool Christian (Houston, Tex.), North Carolina: A native of Bulls swingman Jimmy Butler's hometown of Tomball, Tex., the all-star game's co-MVP is a fluid, slender wing with the ability to score from deep range and off the off the dribble, but Jackson's knack for moving without the ball and hit mid-range jumpers is uncanny for a young player, especially in this era of basketball, bringing to mind players like Hall of Famer Reggie Miller and ex-Bull Rip Hamilton.
Stanley Johnson, 6-7 wing, Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.), Arizona: Aside from Okafor, the powerful, versatile Johnson may be the most NBA-ready prospect in the class, as he has the versatility to play up to four positions--the strength, size, toughness and rebounding ability to play on the interior, coupled with enough ballhandling ability and court vision to play point guard for a nationally-ranked program his senior year--and while his well-rounded scoring prowess gets its fair share of recognition, perhaps his best trait is a non-stop motor.
Kevon Looney, 6-9 forward, Hamilton (Milwauke, Wisc.), UCLA: A lanky athlete with promising enough perimeter talent to hint at an eventual future on the wing, Looney's knack for rebounding, ability to run the floor in transition and the explosiveness that allows him to play above the rim with ease allows him to excel on the interior and as he continues to add polish to his smoothness with the ball and soft touch, it appears that a formidable inside-outside threat is in the making.
Emmanuel Mudiay, 6-5 point guard, Prime Prep (Dallas, Tex.), SMU: After playing for football Hall of Famer Deion Sanders' high school, Mudiay will stay at home to play for another legend, Larry Brown, who should help the oversized floor general add a consistent jumper to his ability to set up his teammate with advanced playmaking, score off the dribble and finish at the rim, all of which contribute to his status as the point guard in the class with the most NBA potential.
Kelly Oubre, 6-7 small forward, Findlay (Henderson, Nev.), Kansas: A smooth wing from Houston — via New Orleans, which he left in elementary school, in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina — it's assumed that Oubre will be in the unenviable position of trying to replace top 2014 NBA Draft prospect Andrew Wiggins. And while it's unrealistic to expect him to make the same impact, the slim southpaw's combination of slashing ability, upper-echelon athleticism and outside shooting is remarkable in its own right.
Theo Pinson, 6-6 wing, Wesleyan Christian (High Point, N.C.), North Carolina: Pinson's explosiveness, high-energy style and willingness to buckle down on the defensive end of the court should earn him early minutes in Chapel Hill, and as the high-flying swingman continues to develop his frame, perimeter jumper and ball skills, it's likely that he will fit the mold of all-around role player the professional level covets from wings not relied upon to be primary scorers.
D'Angelo Russell, 6-5 shooting guard, Monteverde (Monteverde, Fla.), Ohio State: The Louisville native is best known for his long-range shooting, but he also possesses the ability to make plays off the bounce, whether for himself or his teammates, as well as a high basketball I.Q. that should allow him to step in and become an impact player next season, possibly the Buckeyes' leading scorer his freshman year with the premature loss of LaQuinton Ross to the NBA.
Karl-Anthony Towns, 7-0 center, St. Joseph (Metuchen, N.J.), Kentucky: Already a veteran of international play — by virtue of playing for the Dominican Republic's national team, coincidentally guided by his future coach, John Calipari — Towns has an almost European game, with his pick-and-pop long-range marksmanship, but he also uses his massive frame to his advantage in the paint as a rebounder and a surprisingly effective defensive presence, displaying more of a physical nature athleticism than he has been given credit for.
Myles Turner, 6-11 center, Trinity (Bedford, Tex.), undecided: The lone top senior prospect in the nation to not have selected a college yet, Turner might also have the highest ceiling of any player in the class, with a frame and agility reminiscent of fellow Dallas-area native and current NBA All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge, albeit with deeper shooting range and more athleticism, which allows him to be a high-level shot-blocker, not to mention low-post footwork and finishing ability that projects a potent back-to-the-back scorer in the future.
Rashad Vaughn, 6-5 wing, Findlay Prep (Henderson, Nev.), UNLV: Maybe the best wing scorer in a class with several of them, the Minneapolis native can fill it up from deep, in transition and above the rim, along with having the ball skills that makes him capable of being a primary ballhandler in a pinch.